The Harper Conservatives won the long-time Liberal stronghold of Vaughan, north of Toronto, in one of three key federal by-elections Monday.
But the race was much tighter than most experts had predicted and Liberal spirits were lifted by a win in a Winnipeg riding that had been held by the NDP.
Both races went down to the wire, with winners not being declared until after midnight ET.
A hard-fought by-election battle in Vaughan, north of Toronto, where the Liberals desperately tried to keep a seat they have held for the past 22 years turned into a tight two-way race Monday with Conservative candidate Julian Fantino eventually defeating Liberal Tony Genco. With all 284 polls reporting, he was ahead by almost 1,000 votes.
The Vaughan race was not the easy victory that had been predicted for Mr. Fantino, the former chief of police in York Region who went on to become Toronto police chief as well as commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police.
But the sting for the Liberals of that loss was blunted when former Liberal MLA Kevin Lamoureux defeated the NDP's Kevin Chief in Winnipeg North. He was leading by about 800 votes with all 153 polls reporting.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, jumped ahead to an early lead in the third by-election in Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette in western Manitoba and their candidate, Robert Sopuck, was quickly declared the victor.
Voter turnout was 32.4 per cent in Vaughan, 30.8 per cent in Winnipeg North and 26.2 per cent in Dauphin-Swan River- Marquette.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff praised his team's performance.
"By choosing Kevin Lamoureux, the people of Winnipeg North have sent a strong message that the Liberal Party is the only alternative that can replace the Harper government and deliver real, progressive change for Canadians," he said in a statement shortly after midnight.
"In Vaughan, I want to commend Tony Genco for putting up a formidable fight and turning a coronation into a tight race between Liberals and Conservatives."
The election in Vaughan was so close, with the result arriving so late, that Mr. Genco took the podium at his election night party shortly after 11 p.m. ET with the result still in doubt.
"I want to thank the people in this room who got our message out to the people of Vaughan," he said. "We're looking forward to seeing what happens in the next little while."
At Mr. Fantino's party, the whole room turned to watch the speech broadcast live by community television. Expecting the Liberal to concede, a hush fell over the room. The din resumed when he simply declared the vote too close to call.
Mr. Fantino's camp waited until 1 a.m., with all but one poll reporting, to declare victory.
The candidate himself kept hundreds of supporters who packed an Italian banquet hall waiting until the final result was in before he strode in to wild applause and chants of his last name.
To the strains of Eye of the Tiger, mobbed by supporters and surrounded by a crush of reporters and cameras, he shook hands and exchanged kisses on the cheek on his way to the podium.
"Tomorrow, I walk a new beat," he said. "This time in the halls of Parliament and not on the streets of Toronto."
He referenced the race's close finish, telling supporters: "Thank you for your patience. I had nothing to do with the delay, I can assure you."
Days before the campaign ended, Liberals were suggesting that Mr. Genco was going to lose -- by a wide margin -- a constituency where Liberal MP Maurizio Bevilacqua took 49 per cent of the vote in the 2008 election. But that could have been an effort to dampen expectations of a Liberal victory.
For the Conservatives, the successful campaign by Mr. Fantino could be interpreted as an endorsement of their crime policies. That would likely lead to more justice initiatives by a government with an agenda that is already heavily weighted in that direction.
The 905-belt of suburbs around Toronto "matters and we want to do as well as possible in the 905 and the 416 (Toronto itself)," said federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who was attending the event and who helped Mr. Fantino campaign door-to-door.
Mr. Fantino's credentials represent "an opportunity for us to put forward our law-and-order agenda," said Mr. Flaherty.
For the Liberals, a Conservative win in Vaughan could be seen as further proof that their leader, Michael Ignatieff, is failing to capture the affection of voters -- something that the polls have been suggesting for some time.
Even though the Liberals have climbed out of the deep trough in which they were mired last spring and sit just a few points behind the Tories in most national surveys, Mr. Ignatieff's own approval ratings are not high.
Before the by-elections were called, the Conservatives held 141 of the 308 seats in Parliament, the Liberals 76 and the NDP 36.
The Bloc Québécois had 47, there were two Independents and six seats were vacant.
Many pundits have compared a potential loss in Vaughan by Mr. Genco to the Liberal loss of the Montreal riding of Outremont in 2007 in by-election that was interpreted as an unfavourable message about the performance of then-Liberal leader Stéphane Dion.
Nelson Wiseman, who teaches political science at the University of Toronto, does not see it that way.
"I think this is totally overblown about the impact that this has on Ignatieff," said Dr. Wiseman. "For better or for worse, the Liberals are going into the next election with Ignatieff and it's not the Outremont by-election, in my opinion, that undid Dion. What it was, was the general election."
By-elections, he said, are generally about the government and not the opposition.
And, more so than general elections, they are about the candidates themselves. Certainly, Mr. Fantino has been the headline in stories about this race far more often than Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He had the benefit of name recognition while Mr. Genco is not nearly as well known.
In addition, it would be wrong to call Vaughan the territory of the Liberals. Three of the seven constituencies that border the riding are held by Conservatives who have been chipping away at Liberal strongholds in the so-called 905 belt surrounding Toronto since they came to power in 2006.
Mr. Ignatieff will hold a press conference Tuesday morning to assess his party's performance. But none of last night's results are likely to be the deciding factor as the Liberals weigh whether they should vote against the next Conservative budget and try to prompt an election. That decision will be more heavily influenced by where all parties are sitting in the spring.
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